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Stewartia walk June 21, 2013

Posted by Jenny in conservation, hiking, Nantahala National Forest, nature, plants.
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Stewartia ovata. Wikimedia photo.

Stewartia ovata. (Wikimedia photo.)

The Stewartia are late this year---as we discovered!

We saw buds, not flowers.

Many things didn’t go according to plan on this joint outing of the Southern Appalachian Plant Society and the Wilderness Society. Yet I learned much of interest from the leader of the walk, Jack Johnston, a naturalist who specializes in stewartia.

The obvious disappointment was that the stewartias forgot this year to bloom when they are supposed to—the summer solistice.  Jack told us that the solstice bloom had been reliable for the past twenty years, but he warned the group that because of this year’s cold spring we might see buds fully closed or just barely starting to open.

Jack talks to the group.

Jack talks to the group.

Other things went wrong. The road we planned to drive into the Fires Creek basin near Hayesville, NC, was closed for construction, as we found after we’d nearly reached our destination. We then drove a long way around to bypass the closure and did manage to reach our starting point at the Leatherwood Falls picnic area. And when we proceeded on our hike to the point where we needed to wade across Fires Creek several times, we found that the stream was running too high and fast for a comfortable crossing. Only the first crossing was manageable for the group.

And then there was an awful lot of logistical confusion around shuttling cars and people to a point along a Forest Service road where we might approach stewartia locations from another direction.


Two things in particular interested me in Jack’s information. The first was that the root of a stewartia can be hundreds of years old. A main stem grows to an age of 80 or 100 years old and is replaced by a newer stem growing from the same root.

Old and new stem growing from same root.

Old and new stem growing from same root.

Leaves of stewartia.

Leaves of stewartia.

The other point I found especially interesting was the concept of canopy gap. Stewartias like to live on edges of streams, which form permanent gaps in the forest canopy. They like other gaps that let in light on one side, such as gaps formed by rock bluffs. A temporary canopy gap may be formed by a downed tree, but that gap will not persist in the long run as other vegetation grows in to fill the empty spot.

Stewartias frequently grow in the company of red maples, hemlocks, certain pines, sourwoods, and rhododendron. The bloom usually occurs at about the same time as the rosebay rhododendron. This rhododendron at least gave us something pretty to look at.

Rosebay rhodo.

Rosebay bloom.

The first place we wanted to cross the creek worked out even though it was downstream of the other planned crossings because the stream was flowing at a flatter gradient at that point, therefore had slow-moving water.

The one successful stream crossing.

The one successful stream crossing.

Fires Creek was simply running higher than normal this year. Rainfall in western NC to date in 2013 has been more than 16 inches above average levels.

We saw a deep pool that some members of our group have used as a swimming hole in hot weather.

The pool is about five feet deep in the middle.

The pool is about five feet deep in the middle.

Patterns of light in the pool.

Patterns of light in the pool.

We followed a Forest Service road as far as a bridge, looked at a possible wading spot a little downstream of that which could take us to our unmaintained pathway, and decided we didn’t like the look of it. At that point we opted to cut our losses and head back. But still, it was an outing worthwhile in certain respects.

The Fires Creek Basin is an area designated as one of North Carolina’s  “Mountain Treasure” by the Wilderness Society, which is working to obtain higher levels of protection for these areas within the current revisions to management plans for Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests.

Fires Creek from the bridge.

Fires Creek from the bridge.


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